Back in the late 1700s, Eli Whitney and others began manufacturing gun parts to exact specifications. Prior to that time, each weapon had to be painstakingly built individually. With the manufacture of identical parts, guns could be very quickly assembled from bins of parts.
Much later, Henry Ford advanced this concept with his assembly lines and affordably-priced cars; and today's advanced supply-chains are the reason behind all of the myriad products and services we enjoy. In the world of information services, computer programmers often employ another evolution called Object-Oriented Programming (OOP), keeping complex programs manageable and fast to deploy by using discrete, self-contained blocks of code and data, or "objects."
Streamlined production techniques like interchangeable parts, teamwork, OOP, and others have been responsible for enormous gains in manufacturing speed, quality, and worker productivity. Using these common business practices, a trained worker can create a far better and more consistent product -- exponentially faster -- than even a skilled craftsman with a lifetime of experience.
Are methods such as these applicable to education? Is it necessary for each individual teacher to build up his/her own bank of lessons, assignments, and test-questions to use and adapt each year for the remainder of his/her career, similar to the individual artisans of the 18th century?
This year thousands of students will read "A Separate Peace." Millions more will begin to learn basic multiplication and division. Yet these students will all be taught slightly differently, in classroom-islands, with teachers employing a wide range of materials & strategies with varying degrees of success.
Amidst so much talk about "merit pay" to reward "successful" teachers -- meaning those who can show consistent and consistently-increasing test-scores -- maybe it's time to consider helping ALL teachers by giving them some consistent tools and training. Harnessing competition in an attempt to force capitalism onto an educational system seems like a blunt instrument -- a solution posited by people whose only tool is a hammer.
Rather than spend our resouces building an army of "artisans" and asking them to figure it out individually, maybe it would be more effective to adapt some basic, proven, cost-effective, and wildly successful business techniques in schools. Merit pay might be a great idea, but it's only part of the solution at best.
With the release of the movie Waiting for Superman and pundits from the NYTimes to Oprah highlighting the "deplorable state of our nation's educational system," it's clear that "something must be done!" No doubt. Of course the movie's heart is in the right place along with all of the many critics'. But rather than an unhelpful and unproductive barrage of criticism and division, maybe it's time for a Second Act: "No Teacher Left Behind."
In a nutshell... have recess BEFORE lunch. No good reason not to...
Excerpted from a WSJ profile of Craig Barrett, soon-to-retire CEO of Intel:
--When something works, don't re-invent it, reproduce it.--
Perhaps Mr. Barrett's greatest contribution to the semiconductor industry was the concept of "Copy Exactly," the absolutely exact reproduction of successful existing practices and facilities in other locations. Copy Exactly has been the key to Intel and other chip companies actually improving yield rates (the ratio of chips that actually work) even as the products themselves have become thousands of times more complex and miniaturized and fabricated by the millions. The decision not to reinvent the wheel every time was, in fact, the subject of [a] contentious meeting where Mr. Barrett outvoted his managers. "I got the idea from McDonald's," he says. "I asked myself why McDonald's french fries tasted the same wherever I went. That's what I told my guys, "We're going to be the McDonald's of semiconductors."
Due to the intense competition of the business world, Intel is committed to a regular schedule of consistent improvement -- Moore's Law. In other words, they're doing quite a bit more than stamping out chips by the millions; they are also steadily improving both the capacity and quality of each chip.
The "McDonald's Method" is not so different from Henry Ford a century ago, and it can be found in varying forms throughout any large business enterprise. Perhaps the most highly successful businesses are the ones that have most rigorously applied what is often called the "Six Sigma" methodology. Six Sigma is slightly out of vogue today in management circles, but no one refutes its effectiveness.
Can we apply this line of thinking to public education? Not in the sense of opting for soul-crushing uniformity in the service of steady improvement or AYP. Schools are not factories, students aren't widgets, and individualized instruction is still key to helping each student to reach his/her potential. However the principle of identifying and propagating the best strategies and materials currently available -- and then improving them through innovation -- might be worth considering.
According to Barrett, at least, it's good enough for fast-paced tech companies, the incubators of some of the most creative and agile minds of our time. The managers initially rebelled. But the CEO pulled rank, and Intel is, well, Intel.
Check out www.earthday.gov for lots of links and free Earth Day resources and volunteer service opportunities for students, teachers, and everyone else.
Although technology CAN provide a useful and occasionally powerful instructional aid -- and despite countless research papers written and dollars invested -- we have yet to witness a significant leap forward in terms of technology helping to make teaching and learning more efficient, effective, and FUN. Sometimes the "tools" we're presented with can just be more complicated and create more work!
Similarly, massive investments in IT infrastructure alone will not correlate to equivalent gains in productivity. The only way to realize the potential is to "retool" to fully utilize the technologies that are available now.
One possible hurdle is that many educational "system" technologies focus outside the education process -- the external results as shown in test scores and other measurements. Measurement is needed and invaluable, certainly! But it's likely that the much heralded leap forward will come as technology tools are applied -- by educators -- to the educational process itself.
This is a strategic decision on the part of every district and school, and it requires buy-in from individual classroom teachers. The answers will be different in each locale, and luckily there won't be a single correct a, b, c, or d choice!
The ST is helpful in terms of state standards alignment and demonstrating "accountability," sure; but that is hardly the only usefulness of a web-based curriculum toolset. The Toolbox is designed to help teachers and administrators spend LESS time interpreting "data" and focus instead on real-life teaching methods and strategies. Countless studies have shown that more time devoted to individualized instruction and the "soft" skills that can't be quantified makes the greatest difference to a young learner.
Good instructional technology should facilitate LESS time spent lesson planning, curriculum mapping, and wading through instructional resources, in order to create MORE time for what matters most in the classroom -- the thoughtful attention dedicated to each student.
Interesting article in Scientific American re: learning and cognition:
Daniel Tammet's reflections on his thought process remind me of some classic comprehension strategies I originally encountered through Dr. Susan Mandel Glazer (make a picture in your mind, put it in your own words, form connections, pay attention to context).
If you aren't familiar with Susan Glazer, her books and programs are great resources for teaching struggling readers and writers, and you can find some of her worksheets in the Resources section of the ST (www.StandardsToolbox.com).
Teachers of foreign languages may be especially interested in this article and Tammet's book.